Kirby Park Ruins: Walk With History Along The Olmsted Trail
A Companion Post for Kirby Park Ruins: The Video
The Central Park / Kirby Park Connection
Credited with inventing the profession of “landscape architect”, Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. is said to have planned the American landscape itself. This 19th-century visionary designed Central Park in New York City (with Calvert Vaux) and conceived the idea of a “parkway” for vehicles— on a driving tour of nature. During a history spanning 125 years, the Olmsted firm completed more than 3,000 landscapes across the United States and Canada, with Fredrick Law Olmstead, Jr., eventually heading the family firm and becoming internationally renowned as a landscape architect himself. The Olmsted impact touched upon parks, suburbs, cemeteries, private estates (including the Vanderbilt Mansion), conservation areas, and university campuses.
Fred Morgan Kirby donated more than 70 acres of riverfront land on the west bank of the Susquehanna River and Wilkes-Barre City commissioned the famed Olmsted Brothers firm to design “a park for the people” in 1921.
Obviously, since it is so prone to flooding, Kirby Park has experienced many changes since the Olmsted Brother days. But ironically, it is because of the flooding that a piece of “lost” Olmsted history still remains in Luzerne County today, hidden away in the “natural area” of Kirby Park, near the banks of the Susquehanna River, because it remained abandoned for several decades.
The path to abandonment began when Kirby Park was washed out with the flood of 1936. At that point, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided that a levee system that sliced through Kirby Park would best serve the city of Wilkes-Barre in terms of flood protection. This division created the divide that distinguishes between the “natural” and the city-maintained areas of Kirby Park.
While the park on one side of the levee remained a neatly manicured public area, the other side became overgrown and even served as an illegal dumping ground for unwanted debris for several decades. During the 1990s, preservationists started clearing the long-forgotten area between the levee and the Susquehanna River, uncovering a handful of lost ruins.
The paved part of the trail that still remains today is the remnant of an old bridle path that wound thru that part of the park decades ago and is now known as the Olmsted Trail. Riverside, you will find the Reflecting/Wading Pool area, which was part of the original Olmsted design, in addition to the remains of the Caretaker’s Cottage. According to the plans, this area was used as a children’s playground, although no attempt was made to install the usual playground equipment.
The intention was to use the Cottage as a rest room for women and children in the front, with an apartment available for the caretaker in the rear. Outside of this rest room was a pergola with stone pavement. A broad flight of concrete steps led to the wading pool and sand beds below.
As you continue further down the trail, if you look hard enough, you will locate the remains of a bandstand in the wooded area off to the left, near the Olmsted Trail sign. The Kirby Park Bandstand included a concrete foundation with a large storeroom beneath. In November of 1944, local news reports describe the structure as having “fallen into disrepair” in an article about a fire started in the bandstand by youngsters playing in the shell.
On the remainder of the path you can search for the remains of a pavilion and two other abandoned structures of controversial origin. Some of the structures are difficult to locate during the summer months because of the abundance of plant life in the area.
The next time you visit Kirby Park, consider taking a walk with history along the Olmsted Trail. Or, you can just watch the video for a look at the Olmsted trail “then and now”.
You can find the video at:
Cheri Sundra © 2012
All Rights Reserved